Madame Ganna Walska

By: Virginia Hayes
VHayes21web

Virginia Hayes is Curator of the Living Collection at Ganna Walska Lotusland in Santa Barbara, California, where she is responsible…

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Madame Ganna Walska posing in front of her home’s signature landscape. Photo: courtesy of Ganna Walska Lotusland

Madame Ganna Walska posing in front of her home’s signature landscape. Photo: courtesy of Ganna Walska Lotusland

In her autobiography titled Always Room at the Top, Madame Ganna Walska declared, “I have a particular aversion to following the multitude in styles of any kind.” She published the work that cataloged her history, accomplishments on the stage, philosophy, and emotions in 1943 just before settling in Santa Barbara. Unfortunately, she never continued that written narrative and her remaining life is subject to much conjecture. What persists as silent testimony to that imaginative and productive time from the early 1940s until her death in 1984 is the exotic and wonderful garden that she named Lotusland.

In her construction of a garden that she hoped “to develop to its maximum capacity into the most outstanding center of horticultural significance and of educational use,” Madame Walska consulted with the best designers that could be found. She tailored her gardens to suit her fancy against their advice at times, too. The cactuses in front of the house are but one example. In the early 1940s, Madame Walska overruled the protests of Lockwood de Forest who would have insisted on a more conventional plant palette. She continually complained to her garden director, Charles Glass, that all he wanted to do was “plant rocks” in the garden, a design concept she had difficulty accepting. And the stories are myriad about her penchant for moving plants from place to place to achieve just the desired effect.

Madame Ganna Walska with the newly installed floral clock at Lotusland in 1955. Photo: courtesy of Ganna Walska Lotusland

Madame Ganna Walska with the newly installed floral clock at Lotusland in 1955. Photo: courtesy of Ganna Walska Lotusland

Madame Walska studiously researched her operatic roles before ever appearing on stage. For her gardens, Madame Walska was no less thorough. She created scrapbooks of articles and photos for many proposed projects. The topiary garden, the horticultural clock with its zodiac symbols, and the Japanese garden were all envisioned through this process.

Madame Ganna Walska kneeling in the garden in the late 1950s. Photo: Ganna Walska Lotusland.

Madame Ganna Walska kneeling
in the garden in the late 1950s. Photo: Ganna Walska Lotusland.

In all her work—for she never thought that she should or could afford leisure—Madame Walska believed in continually striving to improve herself  and her surroundings. An “enemy of the average” was how she described herself in her earlier writing.  “It seems to me that the best way to develop creativeness is to learn the technique of the great artists and to imitate them. First, do as well as they do; then try to surpass them in order, finally, to surpass yourself. To put it in the language of sports, always try to beat your own established record for in Art as in everything else, if we do not advance, we retrograde,” she wrote.

Madame picking lemons. Photo: courtesy Ganna Walska Lotusland

Madame picking lemons. Photo: courtesy Ganna Walska Lotusland

As in her pursuit of a singing career, which at times seemed to her to be doomed to failure, Madame Walska refused to acknowledge defeat in her garden improvements. Torrential rains might saturate the soil and topple her newest cactus plants or searing heat threaten the ferns, but she would not desist, as she had already professed a belief that, “Now the word ‘impossibility’ does not exist in my vocabulary any more. Nothing is impossible!” Clearly, the woman who claimed that “Never could I do anything comfortably or halfway,” would bring her creative talents from the stage to the new one that became her garden in Santa Barbara

Today, many unique qualities make Lotusland quite unlike other gardens of its size or history. Visitors are seduced by the exuberance of mass plantings of dramatic plants, the juxtaposition of the ordinary with the exotic, the unexpected contrasts when walking from one garden to the next, and the use of plant form and color instead of showy floral displays.  Like the visionary behind it, Ganna Walska Lotusland is a garden of complex character, whimsical fantasy, and extraordinary horticultural achievement.


 

 

Whimsical topiary features at Lotusland. Photo: courtesy of Ganna Walska Lotusland

Whimsical topiary features at Lotusland. Photo: courtesy of Ganna Walska Lotusland

Endowing the Future

Ganna Walska Lotusland recently announced it has received a $1 million endowment from an anonymous donor to sustain the historic Topiary Garden.

The original Topiary Garden at Lotusland was created by Ralph Stevens and Madame Ganna Walska from 1955 through 1957, and includes two types of specialized gardens: a 25-foot working floral clock, and  trained topiaries. At the time, Lotusland’s floral clock was the largest in the world and it features a face with each hour signified by a copper zodiac sign set in plantings of different succulents and colored stones. Ganna Walska surrounded the clock with numerous large topiaries, already clipped as fanciful animals and geometric forms, she acquired from Osaki Plant Zoo in Los Angeles.

“Lotusland’s topiaries and garden clock are critically important examples of the spectacular features incorporated into American garden estates during the first half of the 20th  century, and they especially epitomize the whimsical aesthetic for which Lotusland is renowned,” said Lotusland Executive Director, Gwen Stauffer. “Many people are under the impression that Ganna Walska left a large bequest that would adequately care for Lotusland—this simply is not true. We must increase Lotusland’s very small endowment significantly to ensure that Lotusland continues to exist as an iconic, living piece of Santa Barbara’s history, and we plan to do that by endowing one garden at a time. Therefore, we are especially grateful to this donor who understands the power of endowment gifts and  chose to endow Lotusland’s topiary garden. This gift is a momentous start to our endowment strategy to preserve and sustain Lotusland in perpetuity.”